Yoga was about physical exercise for me

Yoga is more than just a form of physical exercise. The modern understanding of yoga does great injustice to it. If you ask any other person on the street about their understanding of the word, there is a high chance that their replies would generally be that it is a stretching workout for really flexible people or that it is a highly dangerous workout that causes a lot of injuries among its practitioners.

To those who have some Sanskrit language knowledge, they would know that the term Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word “Yug”, which means union. Union? Union of? That’s a very vague terminology. Yoga practitioners seek union of their physical body, mind and soul with the divine through the practice of yoga. There are a number of types of yoga. The one that we conveniently have thought it to be is only one of the eight aspects of the Ashtanga Yoga. The physical exercise that is made up of various poses is called Asana.

Another confusion in the field of yoga is the definition of the terms “hatha” and “vinyasa”. Through this course, I realize that practitioners of hatha yoga practise their asanas by holding a particular pose for a longer period of time. Sequence of poses is not highly important in this category. On the other hand, vinyasa yoga is more demanding. The execution of each pose must be precise, the sequence of poses must obey a certain set of guidelines and the transition between poses must be smooth in terms of movement, breath and energy flow.

The other aspects of yoga that are still overshadowed by the overly emphasized Asana are Pranayama, Dhyana, Yama, Niyama, Dharana, Pratyahara and Samadhi. In this article, I would share my understanding of the other two aspects, which are overshadowed by the practice of Asana; Pranayama and Dharana.

Pranayama, which is often treated as a secondary aspect of yoga as compared to Asana, is often being undermined as a mere breathing exercise. Modern science and medical studies could only draw conclusions in terms of physical, chemical and biological effect of breathing, the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in alveoli and the importance of oxygen in our body for sustenance. But from pranayama’s point of view, the western philosophy on breathing is only the tip of the iceberg. The word “prana” has already made it obvious that the practice involves energy, more than just the energy derived from the food that we consume. Similar to the traditional Chinese medicine’s concept of Qi, “prana” is the vital energy that is intangible, abstract and almost mystic. However, this abstract form of energy is the key difference between a living man and a dead one.

The practice of pranayama is claimed to have physical, mental and spiritual benefits to the practitioners. If spiritual advantages are considered beyond your comprehension of logic, then do at least consider the immediate and obvious benefits of the exercises.

For example, the practice of Nadi Shodana, which consists of alternate nostril breathing and breath retention, does directly or indirectly makes the body (circulatory system) especially the heart and lungs to work more efficiently. With a doubled time of exhalation, a doubled time of breath retention and a doubled time of void of breath (after exhalation), the lungs would be “forced” to be more efficiently in absorbing the oxygen from every breath that the body takes. Indirectly, the heart would need to pump more blood (that carries carbon dioxide) into the lungs for the gas exchange and get the oxygen-rich blood cells to deliver oxygen to various parts of the body. A specific time to breathe, such as 5 seconds, is generally longer than our regular breathing. This means we train ourselves to develop deeper breathing habits. Deeper breathing would lead to more oxygen in every inhalation. Longer time of exhalation would mean that a higher percentage of the air exhaled contains carbon dioxide. Thus lesser oxygen would be released through respiration as compared to our regular breathing. Longer breath retention time would mean more time for the lungs and blood to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Lastly, longer time of body without breath would train the body to be more efficiently in the delivery of oxygen-rich blood cells to vital organs and parts of body, it would create “hungry” oxygen deprived blood cells that would absorb oxygen faster and it would train the mind and body to not be in a state of panic in cases where there is an unexpected trauma.

The third aspect of yoga is somewhat being overlooked or misunderstood by its more abstract cousin, dhyana. General public often fail to recognize that the link between the state of conscious and meditation is the art of concentration, Dharana. Perhaps it is easier for the people in the past to practice concentration. The reason for coming to such conclusion is that in this current age, we have reached to a stage where we are constantly being surrounded by distractions of all sorts. It could be the television or the Internet. It could be pop culture or fashion. Surrounded by sky-high buildings that seem trying to reach the heavens and media that bombard us with endless flow of information 24/7, one would not be surprised at how short the attention span of the younger generation is. Mankind has become so accustomed to fast changing landscape that their patience grow thinner and their knowledge is skewed towards superficial subjects. Mankind becomes more and more entrapped and enslaved in this illusion-world.  Weakness in dharana is revealed in situations when the mind takes the reins of your body and gives you an emotional roller-coaster ride. The failure to keep the mind under your control means that your concentration is weak.

Dharana trains the body to be disciplined. Concentration comes in various forms such as determination, perseverance, endurance and focus. But the essence is same which is concentration. It helps to prevent the mind from overtaking the body. Concentration would aid us from becoming easily affected by external factors. When we are no affected by external factors, our tasks would be easier and faster to accomplish. Being concentrated does not mean we become oblivious to the surroundings. We are still well aware of what is happening around us but we have an option to turn off those that are not pertinent in our lives.

In practice, there are many ways to train our concentration. One of the ways is to use visual or imagery to train the mind to focus. In Buddhist practice, mandalas are used to aid the believers to focus and concentrate before transcending into a state of meditation. Some rely sounds, from chants or bells, to get into meditation. Others use the sense of touch, such as hand mudras, as point of focus. Only after we have successfully practise dharana, we would then be ready for dhyana, meditation.



(200hr Yoga TTC – July 2013)

“But I could be wrong.”
― Carl Sagan